James Ka'upena Wong is known in Hawaii as a chanter, a "keeper of the word" and thus the language, but he also is recognized as a composer, instrumentalist, and tradition-bearer. His mother was an accomplished hula dancer and his father was a singer. Upon returning from college in 1959, Wong began a serious 12-year apprenticeship with master teacher (kumu) Mary Kawena Puku'i. Through this training, he learned the five primary styles of ancient poetic chant (mele kahiko). Wong also mastered the basic instruments accompanying chant and hula including the pahu (drum) and the 'ukeke (musical bow). He is one of the few masters of the full spectrum of ancient instruments, many of them rarely used today.
In 1964, Wong was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival in what is generally acknowledged as the first presentation of Hawaiian chant as an American folk tradition. He performed in 1969 in Washington, DC for the dedication of the statue of King Kamehameha I in Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol. Revered to this day as a teacher and mentor, Wong, along with Professor Barbara Smith, helped establish a program in Hawaiian chant and hula at the University of Hawaii, the first representation of Hawaiian culture in higher education in the state.
NEA: Congratulations on your award. How do you feel about being honored like this?
MR. WONG: I am pleased and proud. Pleased that Hawaiian poetry is being honored through the voice of the chanter, proud because the honor is an acknowledgement of the knowledge and skills of my teachers. Because this award honors Hawaiian chants, it honors all teachers and practitioners - past present and future - of "Naleo Beli," the chanter's art.
The award is also a testimonial to our nation, a nation that believes in the richness of diversity.
NEA: Why were you so interested in learning about Hawaiian cultural traditions?
MR. WONG: Hawaiian cultural aspects were very much a part of our lifestyle in Hawaii, a big part of my upbringing. Mother danced the hula, though not the ancient hula dance with chants. When she danced the hula we were exposed to the poetry, the visual delight, of the hula. My dad enjoyed singing and learned lots of Hawaiian songs. I have an uncle who knows all about the luau, the traditional Hawaiian feast and he was the one we turned to when the family clan got together for those occasions. My mother's sister studied ancient hula, the hula with the chants.
So I was not totally Western. By the time I grew up I was already a hybrid.
NEA: Tell me about your work with Mary Kawena Puku'i. What initially attracted you to learning from her?
MR. WONG: She was an established cultural icon in Hawaii. She was employed by the Bishop Museum and known throughout the world. The museum drew visitors from diverse academic backgrounds around the world and if they wanted clarification about Native Hawaiian and Island Hawaiian culture, they had to speak with her. She also spoke frequently at schools, and gave what they called the senior lectures at my high school. She did that when I was a senior.
When I finished college and came home, I still had an overwhelming desire to tap into our Hawaiian cultural heritage. I was working at the time for my brother selling truck and trailer parts - he was such a sweet brother, he knew I was fooling around with my Hawaiian culture things and not selling truck and trailer parts! I didn't know Mary Kawena Puku'i that well but I called her anyway. I was a little tongue tied at first, but when I mentioned who I was and said mother's name, she reminded me that at one time she Mother's babysitter! I remember hearing about this, but I guess it hadn't really sunk in. Well, that was a real ice-breaker. She invited me to come meet her. That's how it started.
During the course of that first meeting she must have recognized my intense interest in the culture and so we continued to meet. Then one day she asked me if I'd like to learn to chant. I almost flipped off the chair.
NEA: When did you first perform publicly?
I had been studying chanting for about two years when I got a call out of the blue from Pele Puku'i, Mary Kawena Puku'i's daughter. She had decided to give up her full-time job and go back to hula dancing and wanted me to be her drummer and chanter. This was a completely unexpected and amazing opportunity. She had already trained with some of the great dancers and chanters, including her mother.
We still had jobs but we would meet at her apartment and go over material. Eventually the director of the Bishop museum invited us to do a program of chant and hula. We started to study even more intensely and Kawena wrote out the format for the presentation.
I can still remember the night. December 19th, the birthday of the founder's wife, the Princess Hawaii Bishop, who was the last direct descendent of King Kamehameha for whom the museum is named. It was raining cats and dogs. We went into the main gallery where they had built an elevated platform with a an authentic grass house where we performed. It was still raining outside but the house was packed. It was thrilling.
NEA: What role do you think that chanting and hula play in Hawaiian life and what are the challenges to sustaining the traditional Hawaiian culture?
MR. WONG: I see hula and chant as a catalyst for bringing all of us together. In Hawaii hula is serving as a catalyst for all of us who love and live in these islands. This is a tradition that we turn to - to see our universality, our common goal andcommon good.
There's been a tremendous renaissance - for a generation or two - of people wanting to know more about the culture, not only in Hawaii but in the Pacific and elsewhere. If you look in the events calendars in the newspapers there's a Hawaiian hula and chant program somewhere in the major islands almost daily. I'm confident that something as good as chant and hula will never die, never be lost.
NEA: What has inspired you to continue chanting and performing and learning through the years?
MR. WONG: It's show biz, kids! I say this in a very positive sense. When you perform and the audience responds, that gives you motivation learn more and keep on doing it.
Also, as you continue to study and learn more deeply, you begin to have those “"eureka" moments when all of a sudden you realize, “"Hey, I've got it!” This is not just a skill that you learn - it's something that comes from within your soul and your heart. I wish every citizen of our great nation could have these eureka moments! It's a wonderful feeling.